English PEN collaborated with Index on Censorship and the Committee to Protect Journalists to host this illuminating panel discussion. Marking the tenth official World Refugee Day, the conversation was focused on the plight of exiled journalists. Alongside the chair, Rohan Jayasekera, Index’s Associate Editor, we heard from Elisabeth Witchel of the CPJ; Sarata Jabbi-Dibba, former Vice President of the Gambia Press Union; Iranian journalist and human rights activist Yousef Azizi and Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, a Sri Lankan journalist and press freedom activist.
In introducing the subject matter, Rohan referred to the 2011 CPJ report “Journalists in Exile”, which was distributed to all attendees. This publication highlighted the experience of Iranian and Cuban journalists in particular. Each of these countries has “driven out” at least 18 of its native journalists in the past year. Elisabeth Witchel explained that many of the Cubans were exiled under a pact with the Catholic Church in Spain, which negotiated with Cuba to secure the release of journalists imprisoned during the Black Spring of 2003.
Witchel began by posing the question: “What do you do when you are given the choice between prison and exile?” This was the decision which several panellists and audience members had been forced to take. They spoke of the difficulties they had faced in having to create new lives for themselves in unfamiliar, and sometimes, hostile countries. They could all relate to the frustration of not being able to practise their profession, whether this was because they encountered language barriers or their experience at home simply didn’t seem to translate. According to the CPJ report, just 22% of exiled journalists have managed to find work in their field. Rohan described this as an unbearable “denial of sustenance”.
Sarata Jabbi-Dibba spoke movingly of her distress at having to leave her six month old baby when she was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on a charge of defaming the president. With international help she was released after just one month, but described the prison as “like a hell” and said it was better to live in exile. She spoke of her colleagues who continue to work in Gambia, some of whom had “remained steadfast” despite the constant threats and constrictive media laws. Many more, she regretted, had resorted to self-censorship.
Yousef Azizi, too, spoke of the dangers his Iranian colleagues continue to face – death, violence and imprisonment. He repeated the Reporters Without Borders’ claim that Iran is “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”. Since the presidential crackdown he estimated that more than 200 journalists had been detained, and that security files had been made up for them. As an Iranian Arab, he discussed the discrimination he had faced, explaining that non-Persian journalists usually suffered more than their Persian counterparts, and that this tended to go unreported. He claimed that three Arab Iranians had been attacked on Sunday, but that the Persian media did not publish details of the incident. He spoke with sadness of the Iranian journalist who recently died in prison whilst on hunger strike.
Uvindu Kurukulasuriya was the final exiled journalist to speak. He explained that he had been compelled to leave Sri Lanka, despite enjoying “the good life” there, because he had been bombarded with hate mail and contrived exhortations that he should “go to Singapore for two weeks”. Fortunately, he has a visa for the UK and was granted indefinite leave to remain in 2001. He explained that other Sri Lankan journalists had created safe houses in Bangalore, on the grounds that it was cheaper to live there than in Europe. He knew of one journalist who had returned to Sri Lanka out of financial duress and concern for his family. He was left permanently disabled after being abducted on his return, and having his legs broken in a vicious attack.
Like each of the speakers, Kurukulasuriya highlighted the importance of international aid. This brought the discussion on to the practical problems connected with arriving in a new country as a refugee. Rohan asked about the difficulty of producing documentation to prove one’s status. One exiled Zimbabwean journalist in the audience said that he had “never felt so humiliated in (his) whole life” than when he was claiming asylum in theUK. Sarata Jabbi-Dibba agreed that she had been treated by the Home Office as less than human. The associated challenge of “bogus journalists” was deplored both by the panel and the audience.
A representative of SW Radio Africa explained how they broadcast news about Zimbabwe into the country fromLondon. She discussed the challenges of having to report from such a great distance and deal with the threats that the radio station receives from Zimbabwe. She told me afterwards that they have taken to pinning the verbal attacks they receive on an office notice board, showing how humour can be used to dissipate fear. She lamented the insular nature of the British press and felt that the international media were missing an opportunity in not engaging more exiled journalists.
Rohan Jayasekera concluded the evening’s event by commenting that the “journalists most under threat are the ones that are making a real difference to the countries where they live.” This may be a truism, but it is one which reminds us how important it is that reporters should not bow to state oppression. If the attitudes expressed last night are echoed in the speakers’ home countries, there seems little risk of that happening.